On Giving Gold Stars to Dumb Smart Movies: Mike Cahill’s ‘I Origins’

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Can an eye change the world? Are we here but not there? Is it ethically dubious to give worms sight, as if we are playing God? If we prove that the eye is a genetic mutation, does that make the idea of intelligent design moot? Is there a spirit in the great beyond where we’re all cats and dogs married in our souls? If even we have souls anyways?

Have you ever gotten high and pondered semi-deep thoughts that come from your handful of college science classes? Yes? Then you could probably write a pretty OK Mike Cahill movie.

I Origins, Cahill’s second film, following 2011’s Another Earth — which did its part by introducing the world to national treasure Brit Marling — is a dunderheaded movie that thinks it’s quite smart. It deals with the gulf between science and religion, between rationality and faith, but the result is a mess that seems to beg for a gold star for merely making an effort. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Cahill’s science-minded films consistently win “The Science Award” at film festivals: that’s basically an award for showing up.

I will give Cahill this, however; I have not enjoyed hating and groaning at movies quite as much since I’ve encountered his oeuvre. And, yes, that gold star goes to this fuzzy-headed man’s efforts to actually make visual art that’s concerned with what it’s like to be a person, that asks big questions about topics like faith and regret, using sort of heady attempts at scientific, Twilight Zone-friendly concepts as a guiding metaphor. It’s a lot more than you’re going to get from the typical factory-product summer blockbuster, or even some overrated indie made by the likes of a Joe Swanberg.

Just as on the nose as its preview implies, I Origins is the story of a scientist, Dr. Ian Gray, who wants to disprove religious belief in intelligent design by proving that the eye has evolved. Played by Michael Pitt in a portrait of the genius as a young hipster, he is nerdy, wearing glasses that he’s constantly pushing up on his nose, and he falls for a sprite of a young woman, Sofi (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), a girl with the most beautiful eyes, flecked with gold, that will change the world, after they meet cute with a masked assignation at a Halloween party. The second meet cute, a subway scene, is sensual and otherwordly, and very good. Ian and Sofi fall in love, discussing the concepts of rationality and science (the good doctor) versus the fact that maybe there’s a world behind the world, a spirit world, a world of feeling and faith and belief (Sofi). Sofi makes a lot of these arguments topless in bed, too, so she’s an effective speaker.

Meanwhile, in Ian’s science world, he’s possibly coming up on a breakthrough with his assistant, Karen (Brit Marling). Clearly true love forever and science will collide with the cruelty of life’s machinations, and it does, in a scene that is strange and shocking, even when you’re busy being empirically annoyed by the preciousness and bad writing characterizing Sofi’s character (“We’re already married in the spirit world,” she breathes, at some point. Etc., etc.) Time passes, Ian gets older and jerkier, as evidenced by his tendency to wear a bow-tie as a scientific pundit on the television, and he ends up marrying dear, passionate Karen.

But Sofi haunts him, as all girls of that ilk will. Then he goes to India and all sorts of things happen and the trailer gives it all away anyways. Do you believe in reincarnation, Mr. Scientist?

There are some good moments in I Origins. Cahill has a knack for mood. The camerawork is gorgeous and hazy, and Brooklyn looks like a dream, even in winter. The relationship between Karen and Ian as a married couple is complex, mature, and sometimes surprising in the turns that it takes. Karen basically rules, and it’s weird that she’s sharing the same movie with a stock character that is basically the ghost of every magical exotic foreigner that changes a nerd’s life.

However, that still doesn’t mean that Marling can’t quite make howlers like this (and this is paraphrased) work: “The man I fell in love with wouldn’t let his grief get in the way of a scientific discovery that would change the course of mankind!” The writing is bad. The characters may be talking theoretically, but the points that they’re trying to make don’t feel like they’re coming from their souls and their passions, despite the nudity, it feels like the point a screenwriter needs to make to create tension. Because the faith versus science thing is so hoary, the weird turns that the plot takes don’t have the same punch or effect.

In a time when most “indie” movies are regulated to straight to streaming dump releases, it feels like a movie like I Origins (by the way, did you know that’s a pun? It is) isn’t ripped apart as sheer stupidity that’s trying so hard to be cerebral just because it’s completely different from everything else in the marketplace and, hey, it’s getting a release. That difference is weirdly refreshing and makes a critic want to, somewhat, call off the hounds. Are we so starved for smart cinema that we’ll stand for this attempt?

Cahill definitely has a voice and a story that he’s trying to tell, where science and sci-fi is the tripping wire for the truth about people grappling with mundane, sweetly human feelings. But the synthesis hasn’t worked yet, and the results are so goofy that it’s hard not to feel cynical, and it probably won’t click until he’s working with a better blueprint. His fifth film, however, or whenever somebody else writes a script for him (but not with Marling as a cowriter, Another Earth was terrible): maybe that’ll be the one.